In the last week, two blog posts that I've commented on have found themselves in The Guardian. One was Lucy Coats' trenchant post on ABBA about A Certain Person and his unpleasant brain injury comment. The other was independent bookseller Vanessa Robertson's equally trenchant piece about World Book Night. I’m interested in what happened to them and the appended comments and in what this means for all of us.
After Vanessa's WBN post, I'd left a comment, among many comments from other people, and mine was picked up by a journalist and quoted (well, half of it) in her subsequent Guardian piece. No other comment was quoted by name. In the Guardian, my quote was prefaced by the statement, "Author Nicola Morgan was among those happy to air objections..." This implied that I'd been asked by the journalist. Actually, she had tried to contact me but my phone was off while I was doing school talks and by the time I got her message it was too late: her deadline had passed. One might think that because I’d commented, I was de facto “happy”. Well, yes: I was happy to comment amongst all the other commenters but the small but important difference now was that my comment had appeared on another forum, in print, with another headline, and taken out of its original discussion. It had been, in effect, re-contextualised by someone else. I am not annoyed, because I utterly stand by what I said, and the journalist's piece was good. But it got me thinking.
In Lucy's post, one commenter's remark was also taken and used in the Guardian piece on that subject, and later, on ABBA, that commenter expressed a similar surprise to mine. I’m not criticising journalists, by the way. There may be an issue of asking permission but I’m not interested in that just now. Ditto any copyright issues to do with quoting from blogs.
So what am I saying? I am saying that the internet has changed something about conversation. Blogs, unless actually private and hidden, are public, and when we comment, although it might feel like a discussion where we're all in the room, we are putting our views out there in a very public way. We cannot then control where our comments will appear. And it's permanent. The internet doesn’t forget. The internet has blurred the once clear divide between the spoken word and the printed word. It's more permanent than either and possibly more powerful.
In a good old offline conversation, you know who is there, who is listening - unless you are being bugged - and you know it is unlikely your words will find themselves discussed in public elsewhere. You can make mistakes, change your mind, clarify what you mean if someone doesn't understand. No one can take your words out of context because all those in the discussion know the context. The discussion is also moderated by those in it. It is controlled and yet can be wild and free ranging. There is little at stake other than the opinions of those present.
In an online conversation, the new conversation, all that is different. There is much more at stake, much more that can go wrong, much less control. You don't know who's listening and you don't know what will happen to your words, except for one thing: they will remain.
We also need to realise that Facebook and Twitter conversations are now watched by journalists. You make comments on Facebook and those comments can be quoted or passed on to people outside your FB circle. I have heard of people having to "defriend" others because they are worried that those people, not being actual friends, may use their comments against them. And I worry about the unguarded comments that some people make on Facebook, because FB sometimes feels like a party, with actual friends, whereas in fact we should always assume that in theory anyone could come across our comments there. If you comment on a thread, the friends of the person who started that thread - whom you may not know - also see your comment. And with Twitter, absolutely anyone can, in theory, see what you say. The nature of a Twitter conversation also means that what we say can be twisted, because of the "edit Retweet" facility, in a kind of crazy chinese whispers game, to the extent that a comment of someone else's can look like ours.
The internet has allowed us to have conversations and debates with people we'd never have been able to "meet"; it's opened up boundless possibilities for new forums, new discussions, new knowledge. And while it’s wonderful that the things we say can be read by so many, that publicity for our views is so easy, that all of us can be opinion-formers, that real freedom of speech is so heady, it’s also the case that these things can hurt us.
So, I urge you, writers and bloggers, Twitterers and Facebook aficionados: spread your words more carefully and thoughtfully than ever. Even if you are merely adding a comment to someone else’s conversation. Anything you say may be taken down and used in evidence - and you may not even get the chance to sign the statement.